conflict between astrology and science by jongordo


									                 Astrology, Science and the Tragedy of Murli Manohar Joshi

                                               Shivaji Sondhi*

There are some fights that do both sides no real good and Mr. Joshi and his Sancho
Panza, the UGC Chairman Mr. Gautam, have picked exactly one of these in their move to
start funding astrology courses at Indian Universities.

First things first. This move is brilliant politics for Mr. Joshi. His market niche in the
hyper-competitive world of Indian politics is that of the fearless defender of India’s
ancient, whence necessarily Hindu, culture against the “self-hating, secularized/
westernized elite”. Being attacked by Frontline and in this journal for coming to the
defense of Vedic Astrology suits him just fine.

There is anecdotal evidence for his tactical brilliance. A default faith in astrology is a
part of the lives of many Indians. (Not just Hindus, of course, as in other matters
involving the common culture. However Vedic astrology involves an appeal to the
classical Hindu tradition so in the following I will focus on fellow Hindus.) As Mr.
Joshi’s critics have, inevitably, attacked a belief in astrology as part of their response
large numbers of people find their cherished beliefs mocked in public. They will likely
respond by digging their heels in on the other side of the debate. Perhaps they will even
adopt Mr. Joshi as their standard bearer in the national arena.

Indeed, from Mr. Joshi’s perspective this move had the same compelling quality that Mr.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh detected in accepting the Mandal report. Sadly, it shares with
that other masterstroke the feature that all Indians on both sides of the debate would be
better off if it had never been invented.

Its political logic notwithstanding, two actual arguments have been marshaled in support
of the UGC’s move. Let me consider these in turn.

Planets and People

The first of these was nicely summarized by the underemployed K. N. Govindacharya
who said (Times of India, May 28th):

“This decision has, in fact, triggered a debate in the country as to what constitutes
scientific temper. It is well known that gravitational force affects human beings. But just
because science is still to evaluate and quantify the impact of planets other than earth on
human beings, should we dismiss that possibility? Science is a continuous process of
learning. Till the recent past, scientists did not accept the existence of the fourth
dimension or black holes. Even now we do not know whether sub-atomic particles are
indeed particles, or energy packets, or waves. Science is yet to tell us what exactly life

    The author is an Associate Professor of Physics at Princeton University.

and consciousness are. Just because we do not know about a thing, let us not deny its

This paragraph ilustrates nicely why Mr. Govindacharya is accurately described as an
ideologue rather than as an intellectual, and why one fears that a little learning is a
dangerous thing. He is deluded in thinking that science itself offers a basis for defense -
on the contrary, the world-view of modern science (for instance reviewed recently in
Edward Wilson’s Consilience) is remarkably complete. To begin with it is hardly the
case that Science is yet to quantify the impact of planets other than earth on human
beings. The opposite is true - it is precisely because the relevant gravitational effects of
distant planets are tiny compared to the other forces that shape human biology that
scientists are confident that we can ignore them. To say that “scientists did not accept the
existence of the fourth dimension or black holes” is to falsely imply that the mathematics
of Lorentz invariance (which is what the recognition of time as a fourth dimension was
about) and that of singularities in general relativity theory was available in the Vedas or
anywhere else and all Einstein and Chandrasekhar and colleagues had to do was to read
them. As for sub-atomic particles they are basis states for irreducible representations of
the Poincare group in the Hilbert space of a quantum field theory (Wigner) and from that
mathematical statement follow properties that can be characteristic of macroscopic
particles or macroscopic waves. It is conceivable that a future formulation will replace
this ontology by one involving a yet to be formulated “string theory” for the purposes of
understanding phenomena at inaccessible energies but it will not change the practical
utility of our current formulation for understanding everyday phenomena around us. The
technical basis for this last assertion is the idea of the “renormalization group” whose
spectacular development won Kenneth Wilson the Nobel Prize and this feature of our
world is what has allowed the exponential, cumulative, growth of science despite
dazzling changes in the “fundamental ontology” along the way. As for life, the basis of
heredity was established almost at one fell swoop by Watson and Crick in 1953 and some
time in the next decade or two I expect that the simplest organisms, such as bacteria, will
allow an understanding of their behavior on the basis of their genetic code and the
implied biochemistry. Consciousness is more of a problem but there seems little reason to
think that it will not ultimately receive an explanation as an “emergent property” of
particular complex systems as opposed to a fundamental ontological element.

Now Mr. Govindacharya may say, “But how can you be absolutely sure that there isn’t
more to the story than you have allowed above? After all I learn from reading Karl
Popper that science contains no true statements, only falsifiable ones.”

The answer to that is that I can’t be absolutely sure that there isn’t anything else, neither
can anyone else about anything else. For instance, Mr. Govindacharya can’t be absolutely
sure that tomorrow Mr. Vaypayee won’t forgive him and dismiss Mr. Jaswant Singh to
make way for him at the Ministry of External Affairs. But he isn’t planning on this
improbable event. Likewise, India as a society shouldn’t plan on the much greater
improbability that something will be found which will in some sense validate the
conjectured connection between the destiny of individual humans and the motion of
heavenly bodies, when a truly enormous body of existing knowledge indicates otherwise.

In response to Mr. Joshi’s move, three Indian physicists working in the United States:
Shyamsundar Erramilli of Boston University, Harsh Mathur of Case Western Reserve
University and Anupam Garg of Northwestern University have drafted a letter protesting
it on the grounds that astrology is not a science and hence should not be taught as one.
About 300 people including this author have signed this letter with the more eminent
signatories including the Nobelists Sheldon Glashow (one of the discoverers of the
“standard model” of particle physics) and Phillip Anderson (regarded by many as the
greatest living condensed matter physicist). If the list isn’t vastly longer it is simply
because the drafters are first rate scientists with other uses for their time. There is little
question that central proposition in the letter commands nearly universal assent among
leading       scientists.    Interested       readers     may       wish        to      peruse for the text of the letter and the list of signatories. The
letter, modestly, confines itself to making the point that methodologies in scientific and
astrological practice are completely different, but as I’ve noted above substantive case is
overwhelming on its own.

Supply and Demand

A second rationale offered by Messrs. Joshi and Gautam is that there is a demand for
trained astrologers, especially in Indian communities outside India which needs to be
met. The Government of India, being the mai-bap of the Indian nation is duty-bound to
respond to this. A kinder version, which is not what is on offer, is that in an open society
surely people have a right to lead their lives as they see fit as long as they do not actively
harm others, and if they want a steady supply of astrologers why shouldn’t they have it?

To this last sentiment I have no objection whatsoever. By all means let Hindu society
nourish its traditional institutions, alongside all other groups in the Indian mosaic. I
myself belong to the ranks of those who feel that the Nehruvian emphasis on a dry
“scientism” as a prerequisite for economic prosperity was misguided and confused the
need for an industrial culture with that of a scientific temper. More generally, little was
gained by decades of organized disdain for traditional Hindu practices which mostly
served to demoralize the country which should have been better occupied building a
robust prosperity that would have ameliorated many more problems a lot faster.

But it is crucial to remember that this stifling of Hindu civil society was a product not
just of Pandit Nehru’s intellectual stance, but also of his supreme creation the Nehruvian-
bureaucratic state which sought to set up a Department with its Own Secretary for every
conceivable project and to outlaw all competitors. The reforming spirit of the Indian
freedom movement was killed off when every argument was forced to take its place in a
cobwebbed file.

I would cheer on Mr. Joshi if he wants to undo this by freeing education and culture from
the dead hand of state control. Let a hundred schools of astrology flourish - with private
money - alongside a hundred private Universities where Vice-Chancellors can focus on
producing academic excellence instead of kowtowing before the entry level desks at the

HRD ministry. But this is not what he wants to do. Instead he wants to perpetuate the
Nehruvian paradigm and perhaps set up a second IAS (the Indian Astrological Service) .
I can confidently predict that if he succeeds this will be the end of a vital Hindu culture -
nothing can survive bureaucratic paralysis. He need look no further than the difference
between the two Anglo-Saxon twins Britain and the United States. There is a Church of
England but it is in the United States that religious expression is far stronger, courtesy of
a history of private arrangements.

Oddly, this does nothing for the State’s own long terms interests either. In common with
Mandal, this move has no natural limits - if it is seen as politically successful, every
group in India will come to ask for its own traditional practices to find representation in
public universities and such demands will be met by successor governments. Perhaps it is
worse. With reservations at least one is forced mathematically to stop at 100%, with
courses who is to say how many are enough. The net result will be to increase the flight
away from public institutions - perhaps to Internet based education from private
institutions in other countries as technology improves.

In sum, with a mai-bap like the Government of India, who needs enemies?

Conservatism and the Left

Mr. Joshi is eager to remind people that starting with Mr. Nurul Hasan the Left engaged
in exactly the practices he is condemned for today. This is completely correct. Indeed the
Left was perhaps even less impressed with science which is why for the better part of two
decades starting with 1970 one could hear moronic incantations of vulgar Marxism (“all
history is the history of class struggles”) passed off as social “science”. It is worth
remembering that the “prestigious” Jawaharlal Nehru University was founded with no
faculty of mathematics or of the physical sciences - and that leftist members of its
professoriate argued against the eventual remedying of this egregious omission that has
not been attempted by any university with pretensions to stature anywhere in the world.
If the sciences in India survived the Left it is because they fled to specialized institutes.

It is a truism as old as the hills that two wrongs do not make a right and mutatis mutandis
that the replacement of left wing mediocrity by right wing mediocrity is not progress. Mr.
Joshi is well within his rights to attempt to displace the left trade union that has
controlled Indian academic patronage for so long (a private conversation with the young,
gifted scholars that populate many of Delhi’s colleges is all one needs to be convinced of
this) but he should do so by opening up the system to genuine, part international, peer
review and by looking for conservative projects that are intellectually defensible and for
gifted people to man them. The left litany that there aren’t academically talented rightists
is ludicrous - it mistakes the outcome of a system of rent-seeking and suppression for its
causes and there certainly isn’t a shortage of conservative intellectual projects.

The Tragedy of Mr. Joshi

With so much to be done, Mr. Joshi has chosen to fund courses in astrology instead.
Worse, he has brought into the open a conflict, between the collective import of
contemporary natural science and one minor component of the inclusive Hindu mix by
which large numbers of Indians live, that could have been left well enough alone. It is not
as if the Hindu in the street goes around under the delusion that he is a puppet of the
heavens. Instead he does what he can, in common with fellow humans across the globe to
deal with the complexities of life. What he faces is a complicated and shifting
environment, more treacherous in India than in some other places and less treacherous
than in others. In negotiating a life’s journey through shifting sands, armed with
imperfect information, we all need some articles of faith, a sense of destiny perhaps, and
as part of Hinduism’s offering on this score, there is indeed the lore of astrology.
Certainly Indian politicians who lead their professional lives in the snake pit that shames
all others, need all the help they can get! But that as I’ve argued above is grounds for
masterly inactivity not foolish advance.

It is hard to believe that Mr. Joshi has come to this pass. When he took office, much was
expected of him. He is a physicist by training and that already makes him one of the very
few people with scientific training to hold high public office anywhere on the planet. In
an age bristling with technological and scientific issues in governance he should have
been out ahead of his colleagues in framing questions and soliciting and synthesizing the
expert opinion needed to confront them instead of playing the philosopher-king in
speeches to captive audiences at National Science Congresses. There is a new India
headquartered at InfoSys and at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore that has won
respect worldwide and would welcome him as their leader if he would listen to them and
would promise to extend to the nation the basis of their success. With the help of this
India he could really go places.

Thus far he has completely failed to capitalize on this opportunity to move beyond the
confines of Allahabad and the world of its university, once a proud institution - now a
pale shadow with no presence in the international world of learning. This is truly a
tragedy - not just for him, but for India which could benefit from the talents of a man of
undoubted native intelligence placed in so strategic a location.

Perhaps it is not too late for him to change course by taking a leaf out of the book of his
fellow MP from Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, who
happily traded “Gandhian Socialism” for economic liberalization when responsibility
beckoned. He can begin by firing Mr. Gautam and blaming him for the astrology fiasco.
As he has already fired the heads of the ICHR and ICSSR he has lots of practice, and this
time he’ll even have reason on his side.


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